Shale enters the discussion at Arctic conference

Amid talk of ice-breaking boats and tools for Arctic oil spill cleanup, the shale revolution found its way into a Houston conference Wednesday, with an expert highlighting the potential of Alaska’s shale resources.

The state has an estimated potential of up to 2 billion barrels of oil from shale and more than 80 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, said David Houseknecht, a geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey.

In some areas, the characteristics of rocks, even on the surface, show the likelihood of oil finds, Houseknecht said.

“When you break these open, they stink of oil. So definitely a heavily oil-charged system,” he said of a specific geologic region.

Other speakers Wednesday morning focused on technologies for detecting and responding to oil spills and also on the process of navigating some ice-related challenges.

Houston-based JCLA Consulting Ltd. highlighted a large system to remove oil spilled in ice-covered water. The system, called the Ice Maggot, consists of a barge fitted with large grinders that would chew up and pump ice and oil into equipment. The system melts ice and separates oil.

A separate presentation reviewed methods for detecting underwater oil leaks and spills in ice-covered water or subsea areas with low visibility.

A tool involving the use of sound waves to detect bubbles of oil and gas could be useful in detecting leaks, even targeting tiny releases, researcher Peter Eriksen said. But a mixed release of large volumes of oil and gas would make it difficult for the method to determine whether gas or oil was released, since larger gas bubbles would dominate readings, he said.

Other speakers discussed methods for operating equipment aboard ships conducting seismic readings, employing antifreeze, wrapping or keeping equipment in heating rooms, and moving with multiple vessels.

While offshore seismic surveys are often conducted with multiple vessels, it can be even more important in Arctic waters, since ships may need to rely on one another to break ice in especially challenging regions.

Ice broken by a lead vessel can quickly collapse back around a trailing boat pulling arrays of surveying equipment, said David Mosher, a research scientist for the Geological Survey of Canada.

Since a boat dragging a seismic array cannot move in reverse, another vessel typically needs to break it free by maneuvering around it and loosening surrounding ice, he said.

Vessels traveling through ice often have specifically designed hulls and sometimes employ a release of bubbles around the ships to further disrupt broken ice, Mosher said.